Yellowknife’s leaders wary of declaring climate emergency

While youth climate activist Ella Kokelj didn’t get a resounding “yes” when she urged Yellowknife’s politicians to declare a climate emergency, she hopes she’ll see the municipality taking action.

The city’s mayor said she feels much the same way, questioning what impact the act of declaring an emergency would have, and suggesting her city is already taking action.

Presenting to city council on Tuesday night, high-school student and Ecology North board member Ella Kokelj implored the City of Yellowknife to both declare and act on a climate emergency. She said Yellowknife would be following “hundreds” of other municipalities, including Canmore, Toronto, Ottawa, and fellow territorial capital Whitehorse.


“They have recognized the need to prioritize climate change adaptation and mitigation, and that the climate crisis is a truth that we must face,” Kokelj told councillors. “Let’s integrate climate change considerations into governance and decision-making and ensure we are in a position to develop and adapt northern solutions.”

Kokelj added: “It is the right thing to do … we have no choice.”

Mayor Rebecca Alty, interviewed by Cabin Radio earlier on Tuesday, before Kokelj spoke, said City Hall is already actively addressing the issue of climate change. She wasn’t sure, she said, how the declaration would help.

“OK, cool, we’ve got a climate emergency. And then what?” she asked.

“If it’s a climate emergency and the request is to accelerate our community energy plan, to meet our goal [a 50-percent corporate emissions reduction] in 2020 instead of 2025, that would be something tangible.


“[But] a lot of it is a symbolic gesture. Does it help you sleep at night, if you’re having eco-anxiety? I’m not sold on it.”

Alty said staff at City Hall are already working on community energy and solid waste management plans designed to do a better job of protecting the local environment.

She said a new community plan, which governs how Yellowknife is developed, will contain measures designed to minimize the impact of a growing city on things like emissions.

The community plan, Alty said, will “really promote infill, which is taking our current housing and, if it’s a single house, turning it into a duplex.


“If we sprawl, that’s where you get greenhouse gases with more vehicles travelling. There’s a lot of stuff municipalities can tackle, and we are focusing on that.”

‘What else do you want to call it?’

Kokelj said the City’s existing plans were “commendable” but demanded more.

“If the City’s own community targets were similarly aggressive, the City would be in an admirable position. Suggestions for reaching those targets include retrofitting heating districts, using compost or biomass as a source of heating, and transitioning to electric vehicles,” Kokelj said.

Councillor Niels Konge, responding, said the City’s investments in biomass heating, solar, and “probably the most stringent energy bylaw in the country” did not mesh with Kokelj’s characterization of the issue as an emergency.

Three other councillors – Julian Morse, Cynthia Mufandaedza, and Shauna Morgan – expressed reservations about declaring an emergency without knowing what a response to that emergency would look like, but asked to talk further with Kokelj about her request.

Calling for “transformative adaption” to climate change, Morse said implementing change in everything the City does is needed.

“These changes tend to come around incrementally,” he said, discussing work like encouraging people to take transit and cycle, and changing the way the city produces and uses energy. Getting district heating implemented in the City is “transformative adaptation realized,” Morse said. Such a system would heat several homes and businesses through a centralized location.

But getting big items like district heating implemented will require money from the federal government, Morse continued. Whether that takes the form of declaring an emergency or lobbying Ottawa with the NWT Association of Communities, Morse said action is needed.

City councillor Julian Morse addresses Ella Kokelj during a meeting of councillors in October 2019. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio

The most difficult change, Morgan said, is working with things the City cannot control directly. “It’s easier to change buildings and facilities we control, but when we’re trying to get everyone in the community to change their impact – whether it’s their own houses or the way they get around town – we don’t have direct control over that,” she said.

Morgan said the City should create better partnerships with organizations like Ecology North. More work needs to be done, she added, before a climate emergency can be declared.

“We are going to have to engage in discussion, it can’t be a one-sided thing,” Kokelj said after the meeting. She added she was “very excited” to work with some of the councillors.

“After that discussion, we should see a climate emergency declaration to reflect the reality we are living,” she said. “We’ll see how that takes shape, but that’s what I would like to see.”

Student climate activists unfurled a banner at City Hall during Kokelj’s presentation. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio

The characterization of the issue as an emergency is crucial, Kokelj concluded.

“We do have to realize that our world is changing and … it’s not manifesting itself in ways that we can predict,” she said. “Everything will be affected and it is damaging every single aspect. What else do you want to call it?”

Ollie Williams contributed reporting.